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The Family in the Networked Society: A Summary of Research on the American Family
Traditional communication technologies (e.g., radio, television, and the telephone) are essentially universal in American homes. Digital communication technologies (e.g., the cell phone, the Internet, personal computers, and personal digital assistants) are increasingly present, although there is an inequity of presence based on economic and cultural differences. The research on the impact of these technologies on families is just beginning. However, several trends are emerging. Use of communication technologies has become a central activity, and these technologies often have a central place in the home. As families acquire more network devices, their use increases and becomes more personalized. However, there is no strong indication that this increasing use and personalization displace family contacts with each other. In fact, there is some indication that the Internet is increasing interaction within families, and reducing time spent using the television. Communication technologies are eroding the boundaries between work life and home life as more work is done at home, and often work done at home requires full attention. Finally, communication technologies seem to reinforce some family roles but also create new roles, which often involve a role reversal as children fill these roles. All of these impacts offer both promises and challenges for the networked family.
Communication Technologies in American Homes
More and more American families are plugged into an ever-expanding array of communication technologies. The newer communication technologies, including cellular phones, beepers, fax machines, personal organizers, and computers and the Internet, join with the more traditional media technologies such as radio, television, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) to connect family members to one another and to the outside world. They offer entertainment, information, and the extension of the classroom or workplace to family members, individually and collectively. The changes brought about by these communication technologies in how families experience domestic life are profound. No longer a sanctuary where the family was relatively shielded from intrusions from the outside world, the home is now a communication hub, infused with messages of diverse and increasingly global origins.
The study of family life and communication technologies requires attention to changing family structures and to expanding and evolving technologies. For the purposes of this article, a “family” will be defined as a group of intimates who generate a sense of home and group identity, complete with strong ties of loyalty and emotion, and an experience of a history and a future. This definition encompasses not only nuclear families, but also groups where all members may not share the same residence. Communication technologies are not simply on the sidelines of family life; rather, family members and technologies in households are inter-connected as elements of the same system. The introduction or change of any element—human or technological— may result in a reorganization of roles, relationships and functions.
Just how connected are American families to communication technologies? Radio and television are in nearly every American home (99 percent and 98 percent, respectively), while VCRs are found in 82 percent of homes and cable TV in 65 percent of U.S. households. Home computers are present in 50 percent of households, and 26 percent have Internet access.  Moreover, 95 percent of all households have telephone service, while 43 percent have access to cellular phones.
These data indicate two underlying patterns: first, a nearly universal presence of a number of communication technologies (television, radio, telephone) across American households, and second, a prevailing inequity between those households with access to technologies, like computers, Internet service, and cellular phones, and those with no access. Household income explains most of this gap, but other factors enter in too. Households in the South, in rural areas, or in central cities, as well as households headed by single females, or persons who are less educated, or who are black, Hispanic, or American Indian have lower levels of computer ownership or Internet access than their comparison groups. More research is needed on what underlies these adoption patterns, but it appears that one explanation lies with the perceptions of how these technologies might negatively affect home life. For example, interviews with Hispanic families who do not own home computers or maintain Internet connections reveal that parental concern over children’s exposure to pornographic Internet sites and over a disruption of family togetherness mitigated some of the advantages otherwise attributed to computer ownership.
While the figures for radio and television are similar for households regardless of whether children are present, households with children are somewhat more likely to have a VCR, cable TV, a home computer, and Internet access. A recent national survey indicates that for families with children, nearly all (99 percent) live in homes with at least one television set, 97 percent have a VCR, 78 percent have subscriptions to cable or satellite television, over 90 percent live in homes with radios, tape players, and compact disk (CD) players, 70 percent have a video game player, 69 percent have computers, and 45 percent have Internet access.
These patterns of access within families with children vary somewhat by the age of the children present, in addition to race and income paralleling those of American households overall. Notably, access to music media, video game players, computers, and Internet availability increases with the child’s age. For older children, too, access to these media is more likely to move into a private sphere—the child’s bedroom.
Ways that Communication Technologies are Integrated into Home Life Using Communication Technologies is a Central Activity.
Communication technologies are not only present in the home but much of the activity in the home involves their use. It is estimated that Americans use media during 59 percent of their waking hours, or an average of nine hours per day. Television or video viewing occupies about four and one-half hours per day. In addition, Americans listen to an average of 2.8 hours of radio per day, read the newspaper or magazines for an average of 63 minutes per day, read books for 26 minutes per day, and use online media an average of 34 minutes per day.
Looking just at children between the ages of two and 17, six hours per day is spent with various media. Television or VCR use claims the lion’s share with over three hours per day. Fifty minutes are devoted to reading books, 34 minutes to computer use, another 14 minutes to Internet use, 33 minutes to video games, 30 minutes to the telephone, and 21 minutes for newspaper or magazine reading. Children’s media use varies by their age, gender, and parental background (including parents’ media use).
Placement of Communication Technologies in the Home
The introduction of radio and television demonstrated the potential for communication technology to become an electronic hearth, the focal point in a centralized living space around which people gather. But even as these media drew people together with a common purpose, they also altered social interaction, affecting the conversational flow and—according to some research focused on television—reducing the amount of socializing especially with people outside the family.
As families acquire more media, the decision about where to locate those media has consequences—sometimes unintended.  For example, the placement of a television set in a child’s bedroom may facilitate the goal of family harmony by eliminating conflicts over programming selections, but also may remove the child from the mainstream of family life and give the child one less opportunity to practice conflict resolution skills. Parents concerned over children’s access to adult-oriented web sites on the computer may put the computer in a common area of the house so they can keep a watchful eye over their children’s use. They may be more drawn into conversations about a school assignment as a result.
Personalization of Communication Technologies
The presence of multiple communication technologies in the home underscores a move toward their “personalization.” Separate communication devices for each member of the family are becoming commonplace. One effect of this is to offer greater separation between children and adults or males and females, as each group listens to their own music device, talks on their own telephone, watches their own program, plays their own video games, and in wealthier families, uses their own computer. Even car rides allow family members to pursue separate audio or video entertainment, with headphones ensuring that one’s differing taste or preference does not inconvenience another.
Many communication technologies are increasingly portable and are not tied to a specific location within the home. This can offer further opportunities for family members to pursue their individual goals outside of the home. In the case of teenagers, somewhat ironically, the cellular phone or beeper is an important tool for deepening contact with the peer group, but the freedom it offers in building friendships becomes less attractive when a parent insists on using these devices for monitoring their child’s whereabouts. Some teens have been known to turn in their beepers or phones due to the unexpectedly short leash they afforded between parents and themselves.
Displacement Effects of Communication Technologies
As new technologies enter the domestic sphere, they may displace other activities, thus shifting the experiences of individuals in the home setting. Some research on the effects of online media has found that family members who go online experience a reduction in the time they spend viewing television, using the telephone, and reading the newspaper,  although some analysts question whether these reductions represent meaningful shifts in activity. In one study, children reported higher displacement effects in television viewing and telephone conversations than adults, and greater displacement effects were noted among heavy online users.
One of the most provocative—and controversial—areas of concern is whether mediated technology replaces face-to-face human contact. This worry pervades the popular discourse for television, and appears in equal strength as interest mounts in the effects of home computing. Research findings on the question of whether online media use has displaced domestic conversations are mixed. While some studies have identified small negative effects on the amount of domestic conversations, another study—based on a larger, national sample of Internet users— found it did not diminish family time. Instead, this study found that nearly half (47 percent) of users report spending at least some time each week using the Internet with other household members. An overwhelming 92 percent say that since being connected to the Internet at home, members of the household spend about the same amount of time, or more time, together. Finally, even if Internet use is not displacing conversations, it is interesting to note that at least for one age group—teenagers—more free time is spent watching television and using computers than interacting with parents.
The Blending of Home Life and Work Life
Communication technologies such as the computer, fax, cellular phone, voice mail systems, and pagers are eroding the boundary between work and home. Forty million Americans telecommute or spend a portion of their working hours at home. The blending of workplace into the living space has important implications for the meaning of family life, the use of domestic space, and the kind of interactions that take place in the home. On the positive side, tele-working is seen as a major social benefit of communication technologies by enabling individuals to stay home and work. Its benefits include flexible work hours, lower household costs, less stress from family-work conflicts, and reduced commuting times. Yet, for many tele-workers the experience brings about a new host of problems: difficulties in managing roles and relationships within the family, a sense of loss as the home no longer serves as a kind of sanctuary, and social isolation from other important reference groups.
Tele-working implies a work arrangement, where hours that would be spent in the workplace are now spent working at home. However, researchers in the California’s Silicon Valley are noting another important trend: individuals who put in a full schedule at work, and continue to work at home. A study of home life in “infomated” households or homes containing at least five information devices, including some combination of VCRs, CDs, laser discs, fax machines, answering machines, voice mail services, computers, and cellular phones, found that these households revolve around work. Working at home may begin with one set of expectations, with a view that the boundaries between work and home life will be clearly maintained, and a balance between working and pursuing other goals is achievable. But the following comment from one of the interviewees in this study reveals the kind of slippery slope many workers experience as work begins to come home:
“At the time, there was a lot of hard copy paper at my job. I thought it would be real convenient to have a fax modem…I also hoped the computer would save me time, and get me ahead at work. I mean, I don’t work at home because it is so great. I would rather do other things, but I saw, or hoped, that working at home would allow me to get even more done and give me an advantage at work. And then I thought that if I need an occasional afternoon off, it would be okay because I would be ahead. Of course, that was naïve. Everybody works at home and now it is a standard. Working at home doesn’t let me get ahead; it stops me from falling behind.”
Furthermore, the “infomated” household study found that the work that comes home requires the uninterrupted attention that a work-saturated business environment can no longer provide. This, then, places a demand on the home to provide a setting where few interruptions take place, a difficult task indeed in a multi-member household. Tensions between family members and longer waking hours (e.g., if some of the work is delayed until children’s bedtimes) may result.
Reinforcing and Changing Family Roles
Because communication technologies are so integrated into family life, they can be used to reinforce certain roles in the family or as vehicles to alter family roles. The role of a family member as “worker,” as discussed above, is getting much reinforcement within the domestic sphere. Anecdotal evidence is building that many American workers are even “on-call” on sick days or during vacations, in addition to evenings, a time previously claimed for putting on the hat of parent, spouse, or housemate. This “privileging” of the worker role may undermine the sense of commitment perceived by others in the family.
The manager role is another emerging role within the family enhanced by communication technologies. As noted by one analyst, “families increasingly view themselves as management problems to be solved, just as they would be at work, with technology.” Pagers, cell phones, answering machines, and electronic organizers are the tools by which schedules are coordinated and responsibilities are divided as families negotiate a seemingly endless array of work, school, recreational, and domestic activities.
Other research finds that traditional gender roles guided the dynamics of technology use in some homes. Males assumed the expert role in computer technologies, with females more often asking for help. Research on an older medium, television, found that males typically controlled the remote control, and thus played a more dominant role in choosing programming for the family.
Yet, as technology has been used to reinforce certain roles, it has also been used to challenge or subvert others. Assuming a different gender in an on-line chat room challenges culturally-limiting gender roles. A young person’s use of music—through highly portable devices—can help that person fashion an identity separate from—and sometimes antagonistic to—the family. A mother rebels against being available any time, anywhere to her children via her cell phone. She sees merit in her children having to turn to others, or look to themselves, when facing some situations in order to learn important life skills.
Interestingly, communication technologies enable a reversal of the role of the expert and the novice in some homes with young people present. One study of 93 families who were newly equipped with a home computer and Internet connection found that the teenager often became the most involved user—the family guru. Moreover, the teenage guru served as the bridge to the outside world, when additional technical assistance was sought, broadening the teenager’s role as representative of the family.
Finally, technologies such as e-mail and the cellular phone are playing an increasingly important part in connecting extended family members (even across national borders), thus enhancing the various family roles—grandparent, parent, sibling. Women are particularly likely to use e-mail for furthering family contact. As families relocate or change in configuration, e-mail is likely to play an important role in maintaining relational ties.
Conclusion: Challenges and Promises for the Networked Family
As we have seen, communication technologies constitute an integral part of the dynamic quality of family life. They function as an easy conduit to a vast, and at times, disturbing outside world. As a result, family life may be enriched, but due to the amount and variety of information that comes into the home, value systems may be tested continuously and, at times, come under siege. The personalization of communication technology devices allows family members to enhance their personal interests and growth, but may limit opportunities for shared experiences within the family group. Additionally, the new forms of interactive technologies dramatically reduce the barriers of time and space as family members interact with each other, with others, or with their work sites. Here, too, the consequences may be mixed. The advantages of greater flexibility in one’s schedule and increased opportunities to be in contact with others is countered by greater demands by others and more accountability, perhaps to the point where privacy is threatened and other roles are diminished. The benefits of being plugged in may be only truly fulfilling when one can be free to “unplug” oneself from the many devices that locate each of us any time, any place.
We also should remember that not all families or individuals are equally connected to a number of the communication technologies that are becoming more important socially and economically. Understanding the nature and consequences of this so-called “digital divide” are important. If the family setting does not include access, alternative sites where individuals can explore these technologies are vital.
At this time, research has only begun to delve into the ways that communication technologies—especially the newer forms—are integrated into family life. More work of an ethnographic nature is needed, where close observations are made of families of differing cultural, economic, and social backgrounds. The information that will result from this type of research will allow families to make the best use of the technologies as they plan their living spaces and manage their personal, family, and work lives.
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